March 9, 2011


Different ways to define and describe think tanks

As I have mentioned before, I am working on a book on think tanks in developing countries -the focus is changing towards the analysis of think tanks influence, though. This first stage has me working on a literature review and, as promised, here as some ideas that I’d like to share with you.

One of the first questions I’ve had to address is how to define think tanks?

After going through a long list of definitions and descriptions of think tanks I’ve decided to organise these different types of definitions or descriptions (and the criteria used)  in the following way (please note, I am not providing a list of definitions from the literature just the ways in which the issue of defining or describing think tanks has been approached by various authors):

  • Legal definitions -for example 501 (c) (3) organisations in the U.S.– and narrative, normative definitions that emphasise their independence, non-profit status, non-partisan, etc.
  • Categories or types of think tanks, described by:
    • Size and focus: e.g. large and diversified, large and specialised, small and specialised (Weidenbaum, 2009)
    • Evolution of stage of development: e.g. first (small), second (small to large but more complex projects), and third (larger and policy influence) stages (Struyk R. J., 2006)
    • Strategy, including:
      • Funding sources (individuals, corporations, foundations, donors/governments, endowments, sales/events) (Weidenbaum, 2009) and business model (independent research, contract work, advocacy) (Abelson D. E., 2006) (Abelson D. E., 2009) (Belletini, 2007) (Ricci, 1993) (Rich, 2006) (Reinicke, 1996) (Smith, 1991) (Weaver, 1989) (Braml, 2004)
      • The balance between research, consultancy/advisory work and advocacy
      • The source of their arguments: Ideology, values or interests; applied, empirical or synthesis research; or theoretical or academic research (from a conversation with Stephen Yeo)
      • The manner in which the research agenda is developed: e.g. by senior members of the think tank or by individual researchers; or by the think tank of their funders (Braml, 2004)
      • Their influencing approaches and tactics (many researchers but an interesting one comes from Abelson D. E., 2009) and the time horizon for their strategies: long term and short term mobilisation (Ricci, 1993) (Weidenbaum, 2009)
      • Their various audiences of the think tanks (audiences as consumers and public -this merits another blog; soon) (again, many authors, but Zufeng, 2009 provides a good framework for China)
      • Affiliation, which refers to the issue of independence (or autonomy which may be a better concept to focus on) but also includes think tanks with formal and informal links to political parties, interest groups and other political players (Weaver, 1989) (Braml, 2004) (Snowdon, 2010)
  • Relational definitions that refer to the self-identification as think tank in relation to other organisations that may play similar, overlapping or complementary roles. I have written quite a bit about this in this blog.
  • And functional, focusing on the functions played by think tanks and including (taken from quite a few authors but particularly Belletini, 2007, Mendizabal & Sample, 2009, Gusternson, 2009, and Tanner, 2002):
    • Providing ideas, people, access
    • Creating, maintaining, opening spaces
    • As boundary workers or windows into the policymaking process -and into other spaces (this comes from the literature on think tanks in China where think tanks are described as windows that allowed Chinese policymakers to look into Western policy communities and societies -as well as allowing western policymakers and scholars to look into Chinese policymaking communities.
    • Channels of resources to political parties, interest groups, leaders
    • Legitimising ideas, policies and practices -and individuals or groups
    • Monitoring and auditing public policy and behaviour
    • Public and elite (including policymakers) education (something often forgotten by many think tanks as it is certainly difficult to assess its impact).

What do you think? Or maybe James McGaan is right and we’ll know one when we see it.

About the author:

Enrique Mendizabal:  Founder, On Think Tanks

Read more from: Enrique Mendizabal